Is Hyper-Compression Detrimental to Modern Music?
In this essay I discuss the highly disputed topic of hyper-compression. Hyper-compression is a term used when a signal shows evidence of extreme compression (most likely brick wall limiting), excessive distortion artifacts, clipping and a surplus of other abrasive production techniques. I attempt to highlight the possible factors behind its emergence in the late 90s, and evaluate its relevance within modern production techniques - this includes looking into compression’s effects on sales, and listener preferences/aesthetics. Hyper-compression is deeply affiliated with a shrill uproar of protest within the music production community and, recently, dedicated fan bases. In this essay I investigate whether all this commotion is warranted.
Theme 1: Psychoacoustics
Perception is everything. Although the human ear may seem extremely sophisticated, it is also incredibly flawed. The way in which we perceive audio has a number of Achilles heels, but the penultimate one has to be the way the human ear responds to loudness. As Robert Taylor put it in his article Hyper-compression in Music Production “Due to the non-linearity of frequency response of the human hearing mechanism, when music is louder we tend to perceive low and high frequencies with greater detail and therefore achieve a more desirable listening experience.” (2015, pp. 25). This fundamental characteristic of human hearing was first brought to light by Fletcher & Munson in 1933 whereby: they played different tones in each participant’s ears and asked them to change the volume until each tone sounded equal to a 1kHz test tone. From this they found that low frequencies and the upper side of high frequencies had to be significantly boosted to be perceived as the same level as the 1kHz test tone - recognizing the human ear’s sensitivity in the 2 - 5 kHz region (Fletcher, Munson, 1933). This nonlinearity causes a listener to believe that a louder signal is better in quality simply because they can hear more of it: “If you play the same piece of music at two different volumes and ask people which sounds better, they will almost always choose the louder, partly because more of the frequencies are audible.” (Milner, 2009, pp. 248).
Intriguingly even the way we perceive loudness is not totally accurate. The ear assesses how loud something is based on its average level contrary to peak level, much like a VU meter. This is the perpetrator behind the common occurrence of audiences finding adverts to be ear splittingly louder than programmes prior to the commercial break. In reality the TV channel in question is most likely broadcasting at maximum volume constantly, the adverts, howbeit, are so compressed that they are hitting this maximum output ceaselessly as opposed to once a minute or so, such as during the actual programming (Milner, 2009, pp. 249).
Our ability to objectively evaluate audio fidelity is further hindered by loudness due to the psychological response it triggers.
In evolutionary terms, we respond to loudness as “exciting‟ because of the implied physicality – without amplification, it takes some physical effort to produce loud sounds, and we still respond to loudness as (if it were) actual physical energy (....) Loudness has long been used to intimidate in this way, and can be associated with fear because the brain also associates loudness with violent impacts and, simplistically, with large size and proximity (McKinnon, N.D.).
Loudness not only sounds better, but induces a physical response of excitement, fear and breathtaking awe of its supposed size and power. Further demonstrating mankind’s susceptibility to volume over fidelity.
This phenomena has lead the commercial music industry to perpetually endeavour for louder volume, under the assumption that audiences will invariably always choose a louder track when under the lense of comparison regardless of melody, timbre, rhythm and any number of musical factors (Taylor, 2015, pp. 5) . This is commonly known as the ‘Louder is Better’ paradigm, and has dictated the recording industry since the 1950s, reaching its peak in the early noughties where the term ‘Loudness Wars’ became quotidian in use.
Theme 2: A Brief History of Loudness
Loudness has been a topic of much contention throughout musical history. In 1899, however, there was not an issue of records being too loud - it was that they were not loud enough. In order to capitalise on a new listening mode, companies such as Edison and Columbia were in a turbulent and frenzied battle to have the loudest recorded medium, “One important reason for this emphasis on volume was that a relatively novel form of collective listening was on the rise at the time: the phonograph dance.” (Devine, 2013, pp. 168).
What initially started out as a necessity to facilitate large gatherings, progressed through the decades into a practice of fear-based desperation for sales. With jukeboxes being installed in large quantities throughout public spaces, 1957 heralded a new era of loudness war. Since the playback level of these “brightly lit monsters” was fixed, record companies had to find new ways to make their tracks louder in order to seem superior to tracks played either side of them (Taylor, 2015, pp. 3). Thus appeared pioneers in creating loud and formidable mixes. Phil Spector was one of the earliest participants in the loudness wars, developing a process labelled ‘the Wall of Sound’ technique featuring large numbers of musicians playing in unison which was then further processed by an echo chamber. “The echo chamber’s natural reverberation increased the loudness and density of the sound by boosting the average RMS level for a given peak amplitude.” (Vickers, 2010, pp. 2). Joe Meek, Spector’s English counterpart, was one of the first to pioneer dynamic range compression. What both Meek and Spector had in common was their aggressive rejection of traditionalist ideas on fidelity in favour of maximum loudness and stability (Milner, 2009, pp. 154). Here is where we see the beginnings of a habitual abandonment of fidelity by the very practitioners who were in charge of maintaining it, a trend that has continued to pollute music production across the ages.
Due to vinyl’s limitations: louder signals causing the needle to pop out of the grooves; louder signals creating wider grooves compromising playing time, (Milner, 2009, pp. 262) records failed to increase any louder than 4 - 6 dB between 1960 - 1980 (Campbell, Toulson, Paterson, 2010, pp. 2). This was all about to change. Waiting eagerly round the corner, 1980s Sony had a digital game changer ready to re-invent the music industry, and raise the average record release by 20 dB (Campbell, Toulson, Paterson, 2010, pp. 2).
Despite the CD offering more dynamic range than the vinyl record, and by this token more fidelity, the recording industry saw this as another opportunity to take loudness further. CDs became progressively louder throughout the 90s, and when the 0dBFS ceiling was coming closer into view, engineers began implementing newer technologies such as digital brickwall limiters, clipping and multi-band compressors, squeezing all dynamic range out of the signal until the loudness wars reached their peak in 1999 - “the year of the of the square wave.” (Milner, 2009, pp. 280).
Theme 3: Hypercompression
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had just released their record Californication - a record so compressed and distorted that the term ‘hyper-compression’ began being used for the first time. Which begs the question, is hyper-compression a bad thing? Nick Southall wrote in Stylus Magazine “Music is about tension and release. With very ‘hot,’ un-dynamic music there is no release because the sensory assault simply doesn’t let up(....) you end up feeling like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange – battered, fatigued by, and disgusted with the music you love(....)” (2006). Southall is not the only one, it is widely conjectured that hypercompression is detrimental to modern music, subjected to accusations of reducing the excitement and emotional power of the music by removing dynamics and creating musical clutter (Vickers, 2010, pp. 2).
Most, if not all genres, are highly dependant on loudness variation to create excitement, even those that are seemingly aggressive in a persistent nature: early 90s genres such as grunge are based upon one riff throughout the entirety of the track, relying upon volume variation to distinguish between sections - Smells Like Teen Spirit for example. (Lawson, 2008)
Along with being blamed for removing excitement and emotion from music, hyper-compression has further deleterious effects on the way music is consumed and heard. Macrodynamic compression has the ramifications of removing any sudden and exciting changes, causing the brain to assign it as background noise. “Attention doesn’t have to be woken up from these changes – you can tune it out (....) Music becomes this background noise (...) it’s not engaging you cognitively.” (Rogers, 2009). On the flip side, if the listener is paying attention, macrodynamic compression can increase fatigue as there are no cues helping the brain to make sense of the signal, and it tires rapidly trying to process what is essentially white noise (Vickers, 2010, pp. 12). Hyper-compression can also inflict deafness, due to a lack of rest periods; and has often been attributed to the downfall of industry sales since the noughties (Vickers, 2010, pp. 13 - 15).
Yet hyper-compression is utilised under the assumption it will accumulate more sales, due to the ‘Louder is Better’ paradigm. However, when Chris Johnson compiled a list of all-time-best-selling-albums (scored by multiplying the number of times it went platinum by number of years commercially available) he found that “The more strongly they sell, the more likely it is that they will have high-contrast characteristics.” (Milner, 2009, pp. 260-261). Vickers also found “the lack of significant correlation between dynamic range and sales for albums that did reach the charts raises questions about the assumption that listeners prefer louder songs.” (2010, pp. 18).
It is therefore assumed that if hyper-compression yields no additional sales advantage, then it must at least be preferable to audiences, otherwise modern music would not sell at all. Consequently, research by William Campbell et al, found that listeners prefer compression over limiting (limiters being a fundamental tool of hyper-compression), and moderate compression over none (N.D.), pp. 9). Robert Taylor also found in his article, Hyper-compression in music production: Listener preferences on dynamic range reduction, that while listeners may prefer moderate compression in pop music, it is far from the hyper-compression currently applied as industry standard (2014, pp. 5). In effect, it is straightforward to suggest that hyper-compression has no obvious rewards or benefits. Seemingly nothing more than a last-ditch effort, from an industry clinging to an outdated belief that has dictated its course since conception.
In this essay I have discussed the plausible ground-zero science behind the loudness wars, how an equal loudness curve lead to a firm belief in loudness above all else; the development of techniques to increase loudness - Spector’s echo chamber, brick-wall limiters and clipping; and finally how this temerarious attitude towards fidelity has heeded little difference in a record’s success. It has instead aggravated angry hordes of audiophiles and audio specialists, and left us with increasingly distorted and tonally offensive records since the late 90s. This is not to say I believe that compression is inherently bad, in many cases it is the perfect tool - it has the ability to give stability and power to a mix, that without it would sound lifeless and dull. In recent years it has become a tool of necessity, as listening has moved from homes into busy streets and cars with the advent of iPods. In this case using compression to give a consistent RMS that can battle against road noise, heavily trafficked pedestrian paths and general city life is invaluable. I do however believe the extent to which compression is abused in the cases of hyper-compression is simply excessive and should be left behind in the 90s where it belongs.
Campbell, W. Toulson, R. Paterson, J (2010) ‘The effect of dynamic range compression on the psychoacoustic quality and loudness of commercial music’ Inter Noise.
Campbell, W. Paterson, J. Linde, I. (n.d.) Listener Preferences for Alternative Dynamic-Range-Compressed Audio Configurations. Unpublished theses, Anglia Ruskin University, London College of Music, University of West London.
Devine, K (2013) ‘Imperfect Sound Forever: loudness wars, listening formations, and the history of sound reproduction’, Popular Music, 32(2), pp. 159-176
Fletcher, H. Munson, W. (1933) Loudness, ‘Its Definition, Measurement and Calculation’, Bell Telephone Laboratories, (5) pp. 82 - 108
Lawson, J. (2008) The Compression and Expansion of Musical Experience in the Digital Age. Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Vermont.
McKinnon, C. (N.D.) Louder Than Hell: Power, Volume and the Brain. Unpublished Thesis.
Milner, G. (2009) Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History Of Recorded Music. London: Faber and Faber.
Nirvana. (1991) Nevermind [CD] California: Uni Distribution Corporation.
Red Hot Chili Peppers. (1999) Californication [CD] Germany: Warner Music Manufacturing Europe
Rodgers, S. (2009) Turn It Down! Consequences of the Ever-Escalating Loudness Wars. Workshop W20, AES 127th Convention, New York.
Southall, N (2006) Stylus. Available at: http://stylusmagazine.com/articles/soulseeking/imperfect-sound-forever-revisited.html (Accessed: 31/03/2020)
Taylor, R (2014) ‘Hyper-compression in music production: Listener preferences on dynamic range reduction’ Audio Engineering Society.
Taylor, R. (2015) ‘Hyper-compression in Music Production; Agency, Structure and the Myth that ‘Louder is Better’.’, ‘Cultural Intersections’ The 10th Art of Record Production Conference.
Vickers, E. (2010) ‘The Loudness War: Background,Speculation and Recommendations’, Audio Engineering Society, 129.